Life without language

Thought without symbols — life without language — it’s a cognitive reality that is virtually impossible for most modern humans to fathom. For the vast majority of us, our thought processes have been profoundly shaped by the introjection of language into our cognitive worlds, the taking on board of a massive intellectual prosthesis, the collective product of countless generations. Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language?

Author Susan Schaller

The question of the relationship between language and ‘mind’ (a word I hate using), or between symbolic resources and cognitive abilities (there, that’s equally vague!), is philosophically intriguing, but hard to address in anything other than the hypothetical.

Herodotus tells the story of the Pharoah Psammetichus (Psamtik I), who allegedly gave two newborn children to a shepherd to raise without language, taking care of them and paying close attention to their first words. Psammethicus hoped to learn which language was the oldest, which one infant allegedly revealed by calling for ‘bekos,’ the Phrygian word for ‘bread.’ In fact, most historically recorded cases of feral children, however, suggest that they do not develop any language ability at all, perhaps even failing to develop symbolic abilities (or maybe not enough researchers speak Phrygian).

We might try to imagine thinking without language, but, of course, we’d be doing that with language itself. In my own work, I’m interested in thought — or maybe I should say perception and action — that is only partially rendered into language (high speed, perceptually-driven decision making and action in sports). But what would thought be like for those without language?

The rare case of individuals without language offers some potential window in on life across the intellectual Rubicon, if we had developed mentally without immersing ourselves in the shared symbols and communicative reality of language. Although we tend to think that only those who are profoundly intellectually disabled, criminally neglected or raised by non-humans fail to learn language, in fact, adolescents and adults without language may not be as rare as we think. Author Susan Schaller has written about the case of a profoundly deaf Mexican immigrant who grew up in a house with hearing parents who could not teach him sign language in her book, Man without Words.

The website, Works and Conversations, has a discussion of Schaller’s story, how she became interested in sign language through a fluke accident, but especially her work with Ildefonso, who had grown up without learning sign language or any other form of communication. The piece, Leap of Faith, the Story of a Contemporary Miracle, was written by Richard Whittaker in 2009 (although I only recently came across it). It’s a fascinating interview, and, although I may disagree with Schaller in certain ways, I think her story of trying to teach Ildefonso, not merely sign language, but the symbolic process itself, is absolutely fascinating.

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